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Struma disaster

Coordinates: 41°23′N 29°13′E / 41.383°N 29.217°E / 41.383; 29.217
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Struma disaster
Coordinates41°23′N 29°13′E / 41.383°N 29.217°E / 41.383; 29.217
Date24 February 1942
TargetThe ship Struma, carrying Jewish refugees from Romania to the British Mandate of Palestine
Attack type
Ship sinking
Deaths781 Jewish refugees,[1] 10 crew members (five Bulgarian, three or four Jewish, one Hungarian)[2]
PerpetratorsSoviet Navy

The Struma disaster was the sinking on 24 February 1942 of a ship, MV Struma, which had been trying to take nearly 800 Jewish refugees from the Axis member Romania to Mandatory Palestine. She was a small iron-hulled ship of only 240 GRT and had been built in 1867 as a steam-powered schooner[3] but had recently been re-engined with an unreliable second-hand diesel engine.[4][5] Struma was only 148.4 ft (45 m) long, had a beam of only 19.3 ft (6 m) and a draught of only 9.9 ft (3 m)[6][3] but an estimated 781 refugees and 10 crew were crammed into her.[7][2]

Struma's diesel engine failed several times between her departure from Constanţa on the Black Sea on 12 December 1941 and her arrival in Istanbul on 15 December. She had to be towed by a tug boat to leave Constanţa and to enter Istanbul. On 23 February 1942, with her engine still inoperative and her refugee passengers aboard, Turkish authorities towed Struma from Istanbul through the Bosphorus out to the coast of Şile, in North Istanbul. Within hours, on the morning of 24 February, the Shch-213 torpedoed her, killing 781 refugees[1] and 10 crew, which made it the Black Sea's largest exclusively-civilian naval disaster of World War II. Until recently, the number of victims had been estimated at 768,[8] but the current figure is the result of a recent study of six different passenger lists.[7] Only one person aboard, the 19-year-old David Stoliar, survived (he died in 2014).

The Struma disaster joined that of SS Patria, which was sunk after Haganah sabotage in a failed attempt to prevent the deportation of Jewish refugees from Mandatory Palestine.[9][10]

Voyage and detention[edit]

Struma about 1890

Struma had been built as a luxury yacht[5] but was 74 years old. In the 1930s, she had been relegated to carrying cattle on the Danube River under the flag of convenience of Panama.[11] The Mossad LeAliyah Bet intended to use her as a refugee ship but shelved the plan after the Germans had entered Bulgaria.[11] Her Greek owner, Jean D. Pandelis, instead contacted Revisionist Zionists in Romania.[11] The New Zionist Organization and a Zionist youth movement, Betar, began to make arrangements, but an argument over the choice of passengers left the planning in the hands of Betar.[11]

Apart from the crew and 60 Betar youth, there were over 700 passengers, who had paid large fees to board the ship.[11][12] The exact number is not certain, but a collation of six separate lists produced a total of 791 passengers and 10 crew.[7][13] Passengers were told they would be sailing on a renovated boat with a short stop in Istanbul to collect their Palestinian immigration visas.[14] Romanian Prime Minister Ion Antonescu's government approved of the voyage.[12]

Each refugee was allowed to take 20 kilograms (44 lb) of luggage.[15] Romanian customs officers took many of the refugees' valuables and other possessions, along with food that they had brought with them.[15] The passengers were not permitted to see the vessel before the day of the voyage. They found that she was a wreck with only two lifeboats.[citation needed] Below decks, Struma had dormitories with bunks for 40 to 120 people in each.[16] The berths were bunks on which passengers were to sleep four abreast, with a width of 60 centimetres (2 ft) for each person.[16]

On 12 December 1941, the day of her sailing, Struma's engine failed and so a tug towed her out of the port of Constanţa.[17] Since the waters off Constanţa were mined, a Romanian vessel escorted her clear of the minefield.[15] She then drifted overnight while her crew tried vainly to start her engine.[17] She transmitted distress signals, and on 13 December, the Romanian tug returned.[17] The tug's crew said they would not repair Struma's engine unless it was paid.[17] The refugees had no money after they had bought their tickets and leaving Romania and so they gave all their wedding rings to the tugboatmen, who then repaired the engine.[17] Struma then got under way, but by 15 December, her engine had failed again and so she was towed into the port of Istanbul, Turkey.[17]

There, she remained at anchor, while British diplomats and Turkish officials negotiated over the fate of the passengers. Because of Arab and Jewish unrest in Palestine, the British government was determined to apply the terms of the White Paper of 1939 to minimise Jewish immigration to Palestine.[citation needed] British diplomats urged the Turkish government of Refik Saydam to prevent Struma from continuing her voyage. Turkey refused to allow the passengers to disembark. While she was detained in Istanbul, Struma ran short of food. Soup was cooked twice a week, and supper was typically an orange and some peanuts for each person.[16] At night, each child was issued a serving of milk.[16]

After weeks of negotiation, the British government agreed to honour the expired Palestinian visas that were possessed by a few passengers, who were allowed to continue to Palestine overland.[citation needed] With the help of influential friends[specify] (Vehbi Koc),[citation needed] a few others also managed to escape. One woman, Madeea Solomonovici, was admitted to an Istanbul hospital after she had miscarried.[12] On 12 February, British officials agreed that children from 11 to 16 on the ship would be given Palestinian visas, but a dispute occurred over their transportation to Palestine.[citation needed] According to some researchers, a total of 9 passengers disembarked, and the remaining 782 and 10 crew stayed on the ship.[2] Others believe that there had only been 782 passengers initially, with only Solomonovici being allowed to leave the ship.[18]

Towing to sea and sinking[edit]

Map of the Bosphorus Strait showing where Struma was anchored in quarantine in Istanbul Harbour (1) and was later torpedoed and sunk in the Black Sea (2)

Negotiations between Turkey and Britain seemed to reach an impasse. On 23 February 1942, a small party from the Turkish police tried to board the ship, but the refugees would not let it aboard.[16] A larger force of about 80 police officers came then surrounded Struma with motor boats, and after about half an hour of resistance, it boarded the ship.[16] The police detached the ship's anchor and attached her to a tug, which towed her through the Bosphorus and out into the Black Sea.[16][19] As she was towed along the Bosphorus, many passengers hung signs over the sides that read "SAVE US" in English and Hebrew that were visible to those who lived on the banks of the strait.[20][page needed] Despite weeks of work by Turkish engineers, the engine would not start. Turkish Government denied its entry and the British forbade it from proceeding to Palestine, the unseaworthy vessel was forced to leave harbour.[21] The Turkish authorities abandoned the ship in the Black Sea, about 10 miles north of the Bosphorus, where she drifted helplessly.[16][20][page needed]

On the morning of 24 February there was a huge explosion, and the ship sank. Many years later it was revealed that the ship had been torpedoed by the Shchuka-class Shch-213, which had also sunk the Turkish vessel Çankaya the evening before.[22][23]

Struma sank quickly, and many people were trapped below decks and drowned.[24] Many others aboard survived the sinking and clung to pieces of wreckage, but for hours, no rescue came, and all but one of them died from drowning or hypothermia.[16][24] Of the estimated 791 people killed, more than 100 were children.[25] Struma's First Officer Lazar Dikof and the 19-year-old refugee David Stoliar clung to a cabin door, which was floating in the sea.[26][24] The First Officer died overnight, but Turks in a rowing boat rescued Stoliar the next day.[24] He was the only survivor.

Turkey held Stoliar in custody for many weeks. Simon Brod (1893–1962), a Jewish businessman from Istanbul who during World War II helped to rescue an untold number of Jewish refugees who reached Turkey, arranged for Stoliar's meals during his two-month incarceration. Upon his release, Brod brought Stoliar home. He provided him with clothes, a suitcase and a train ticket to Aleppo after the British government had given him papers to go to Palestine.[27][28]


On 9 June 1942, Lord Wedgwood opened the debate in the House of Lords by alleging that the British government had reneged on its commitments and urging for the League of Nations mandate over Palestine to be transferred to the United States. He stated with bitterness: "I hope yet to live to see those who sent the Struma cargo back to the Nazis hung as high as Haman cheek by jowl with their prototype and Führer, Adolf Hitler".[29] Anglo-Jewish poet Emanuel Litvinoff, serving in the British Army at the time, wrote a scathing poem mourning the loss of Struma. Having volunteered in the British Army to fight the Nazis, he called the British uniform he wore a "badge of shame" in response to the incident.[30]

For many years, there were competing theories about the explosion that sank Struma. In 1964, a German historian discovered that Shch-213[31] had fired a torpedo, which sank the ship.[32] That was later confirmed from several other Soviet sources.[33] The submarine had been acting under secret orders to sink all neutral and enemy shipping entering the Black Sea to reduce the flow of strategic material to Nazi Germany.[34]

Frantz and Collins call the sinking of Struma the "largest naval civilian disaster of the war".[35] Greater numbers of civilians perished in other maritime disasters of the war, including Wilhelm Gustloff, Cap Arcona and Junyō Maru, but there were also military personnel aboard those ships at the time.

Struma monument in Holon, Israel

On 26 January 2005, Israel Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, told the Knesset:

The leadership of the British Mandate displayed... obtuseness and insensitivity by locking the gates to Israel to Jewish refugees who sought a haven in the Land of Israel. Thus were rejected the requests of the 769 [sic] passengers of the ship Struma who escaped from Europe – and all but one [of the passengers] found their death at sea. Throughout the war, nothing was done to stop the annihilation [of the Jewish people].[36]


Struma monument in Ashdod, Israel


In July 2000, a Turkish diving team found a wreck on the sea floor in about the right place and announced that it had found Struma. A team, led by a British technical diver and a grandson of one of the victims, Greg Buxton, later studied that and several other wrecks in the area but could not positively identify any as Struma since the wreck that had been found by the Turks was far too large.[37]

On 3 September 2000, a ceremony was held at the site to commemorate the tragedy. It was attended by 60 relatives of Struma victims, representatives of the Jewish community of Turkey, the Israeli ambassador and prime minister's envoy and British and American delegates, but David Stoliar chose to not attend for family reasons.[38]

Soviet Shch-213 submarine[edit]

In November 2008, a team of Dutch, German and Romanian divers of the Black Sea Wreck Diving Club discovered the wreck of Shch-213 off the coast of Constanţa in Romania. Since the registration markings that could have helped to identify the wreck were missing because of damage to the submarine, it took divers until 2010 to identify her as Shch-213.[39]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Food Packages Sent to Struma Victims Arrive in Palestine After Two-year Delay, JTA (Jewish Telegraphic Agency, 15 September 1943, taking 781 Jewish refugees from Rumania to their death.
  2. ^ a b c Aroni, Samuel (2002–2007). "Who Perished on the Struma And How Many?". JewishGen.org.
  3. ^ a b Lloyd's Register of Shipping (PDF). London: Lloyd's Register. 1932. Retrieved 25 March 2013.
  4. ^ "Day 834 December 12, 1941". World War II Day-by-Day. 11 December 2011. Retrieved 25 March 2013.
  5. ^ a b Allen, Tony; Lettens, Jan (22 December 2012). "SS Struma (Струма) (+1942)". The Wreck Site. Retrieved 25 March 2013.
  6. ^ "Struma - the tragedy of the ship of hope". Yekta Uzunoglu. Retrieved 5 July 2018.
  7. ^ a b c Aroni, Samuel (2002–2007). "Who Perished on the Struma And How Many?". JewishGen.org.
  8. ^ Chana Afik (11 February 2009). "By Land, Air, Sea". Mishpacha. p. 29. killing 768 men, women, and children, with only one survivor."
  9. ^ "Palestine: World War II". Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved 28 July 2010.
  10. ^ "The Patria Disaster: Forgotten Zionist Mass Tragedy". ANU - Museum of the Jewish People. 26 November 2018. Retrieved 8 November 2023.
  11. ^ a b c d e Ofer 1990, pp. 149–171
  12. ^ a b c Frantz & Collins 2003[page needed]
  13. ^ Frantz & Collins 2003, pp. 295–335.
  14. ^ "The Struma: The Boat That Never Made It". 20th Century History. About.com. 2013. Archived from the original on 19 September 2005. Retrieved 11 May 2012.
  15. ^ a b c Druks 2000, p. 74.
  16. ^ a b c d e f g h i Druks 2000, p. 75.
  17. ^ a b c d e f "David Stoliar Born 1922 Kishinev, Romania". Holocaust Personal Histories. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Archived from the original on 8 December 2012. Retrieved 25 March 2013.
  18. ^ Ives, Joel. "The Struma Tragedy". Romania SIG. JewishGen.
  19. ^ Ofer 1990, p. 166.
  20. ^ a b Frantz & Collins 2003.
  21. ^ Fraser, T.G (2004). THE ARAB–ISRAELI CONFLICT (2nd ed.). PALGRAVE MACMILLAN. p. 16. ISBN 1403913382.
  22. ^ Helgason, Guðmundur (1995–2010). "Shch-213". Uboat. Retrieved 12 July 2010.
  23. ^ Rohwer, Jürgen (1997). Allied submarine attacks of World War Two: European theatre of operations, 1939–1945. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press. p. 107.
  24. ^ a b c d Rubinstein, Shimon. "David Stoliar". Personal Tragedies as a Reflection on a Great Tragedy Called Struma. Retrieved 25 March 2013.
  25. ^ Frantz & Collins 2003, Back cover.
  26. ^ Frantz & Collins 2003, pp. 196–197.
  27. ^ Frantz & Collins 2003, p. xii.
  28. ^ "Portrait of Jewish rescuer Simon Brod. - Collections Search - United States Holocaust Memorial Museum". collections.ushmm.org. Retrieved 3 May 2020.
  29. ^ Sicker, Martin (2000). Pangs of the Messiah : The Troubled Birth of the Jewish State. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group. p. 161.
  30. ^ Laity, Paul (9 August 2008). "Identity in the East End". The Guardian.
  31. ^ "USSR Shch-213". uboat.net. Retrieved 14 September 2010.
  32. ^ Rohwer, Jürgen (1964). Die Versenkung der Judischen Flüchtlingstransporter Struma und Mefkura im Schwartzen Meer February 1942 – August 1944. Frankfurt am Main: Bernard Graefe Verlag für Wehrwesen.[page needed] Cited in Frantz and Collins, p. 253, and Ofer, 1990, p. 358
  33. ^ Frantz & Collins 2003, pp. 252–254.
  34. ^ Frantz & Collins 2003, p. 254.
  35. ^ Frantz & Collins 2003, p. 255.
  36. ^ Sharon, Ariel (26 January 2005). "PM Sharon's Speech at Special Knesset Session Marking the Struggle Against Anti-Semitism". Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Retrieved 28 March 2013.
  37. ^ "The Struma Project". Nesia Ltd. 2000. Archived from the original on 28 September 2007.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: unfit URL (link)
  38. ^ Frantz & Collins 2003, pp. 281–291.
  39. ^ "Divers discover Russian submarine" (in Dutch). 13 September 2010.


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